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In praise of Earth, Wind & Fire, purveyor of black excellence for a half-century

Mikael Wood, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

LOS ANGELES -- Earth, Wind & Fire hadn't been booked to perform Tuesday afternoon at City Hall, where members of the veteran R&B band took part in a ceremony designating -- what other date? -- the 21st of September as Earth, Wind & Fire Day in Los Angeles.

But that didn't stop Philip Bailey from grabbing the microphone at an official-looking lectern set up near the building's steps as a DJ spun "September," the group's late-'70s classic about a night when "love was changing the minds of pretenders."

To the delight of a few hundred city workers on their lunch break -- including some wearing T-shirts that read "DO YOU REMEMBER?" -- the frontman proceeded to bust out a couple of lines over the ecstatic funk groove that's been elevating moods on contact for decades.

It was almost enough to make you forget you were in the spot where the City Council settles matters of municipal land use.

Tuesday's ceremony wasn't the only time Earth, Wind & Fire will find itself in such a serious setting this year, nearly half a century after the band was founded in 1971 by the late Maurice White, who died at age 74 in 2016. In November, the group's surviving principals -- Bailey, drummer and singer Ralph Johnson, and Maurice's brother, bassist Verdine White, all 68 -- will be honored alongside Amazon's Jeff Bezos and "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda at the Smithsonian's American Portrait Gala in Washington, D.C.

Then they'll be feted at the Kennedy Center Honors, the annual awards event meant to recognize artists and performers who've helped shape American culture. (This year's other recipients are Sally Field, Linda Ronstadt, Michael Tilson Thomas and the folks behind "Sesame Street.")

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All the high-minded accolades are well deserved for a Grammy-winning act designed by Maurice White to "render a service to humanity," as Bailey put it. The singer was referring to the essential optimism of sophisticated yet irresistible EWF songs like "September" -- streamed on Spotify and YouTube almost a billion times -- and "Shining Star," which carried ideas of what's now called black excellence into the pop mainstream throughout the 1970s.

"I often think about Maurice's intent," Bailey said, adding that the awards seem to him a "testament" to White's determination to "give something very positive to people."

Yet as the event at City Hall demonstrated, Earth, Wind & Fire shouldn't be thought of as a museum piece. The group, whose flashy road show made it a must-see in its heyday, is still a nimble live act capable of putting over beloved tunes that blend soul, rock, jazz and African music. (Maurice White, who'd suffered from Parkinson's disease, stopped touring with EWF around 1996.) This weekend the band will perform two shows at the Hollywood Bowl, a venue that's become something of a regular haunt for an outfit based in L.A. since virtually the beginning.

"The room is as iconic as we are," Verdine White said.

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